For most of the twentieth century, the dominant conservation paradigm in South Africa has been based on an approach bequeathed by the late nineteenth century, i.e. a wildlife-centered, preservationist approach which appealed almost exclusively to the affluent, educated, mainly white minority. Single species campaigns, such as the ‘Save the Rhino’ campaign, promoted by the mainstream environmental movement in the midst of black poverty, have added to a widely held perception among black communities, that conservationists rate the needs of wild animals above those of the poor. Alienated by the uncaring image of conservation, many black South Africans have long regarded it as an irrelevant, elitist concern. In recent years, however, there has been a major shift in attitudes to, and perceptions of, the environment. This was brought about in large measure, by the unbanning of illegal political organisations such as the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party in February 1990. This act not only created the political space for organisations to broaden their horizons beyond anti-apartheid politics, but, as a result of the greater flexibility and more relaxed political climate which followed, added impetus to the dissolution of the formerly strict boundaries between politics and conservation. Thus, while political organisations gradually began to accept that environmental issues formed a legitimate part of their agenda, the traditional notion that equated conservation wholly with the protection of wildlife and the preservation of the natural environment, began to give way to a more holistic approach, within which socio-economic and political aspects are embraced, together with ecological concerns.
In the period since 1990, South Africa has been undergoing an environmental resurgence which has attracted broad-based community interest and support. As the environmental movement moved away from its formerly narrowly-based approach, labour and community-based organisations such as trade unions and civic associations, simultaneously began to break free of the traditional boundaries between politics and the environment, and began to co-operate on environmental issues of common interest. National parks, formerly isolated pockets of healthy habitats in the midst of rural poverty and environment degradation, began to reach out to local communities in the form of co-management strategies, environmental education programmes, and sustainable utilisation of traditionally-used natural resources. Environmental organisations in the black townships, particularly those focused on enhancing quality of life and the immediate environment, such as food gardens and cash recycling schemes, started to proliferate. This current resurgence of environmental interest however, although recent in origin, has its roots deep in the history of twentieth century South African environmentalism.
The field of environmental history is largely under-researched in South Africa, with many studies which focus on the history of conservation, offering a romanticized, Eurocentric approach, which not only ignores the unpalatable socio-political realities of the past, but which also ignores, or distorts the role and environmental perceptions of the black South Africans. Similarly, the work of individuals and organisations which ran counter to the dominant conservation ideology, has not received the acknowledgment it deserved. By placing the development of the South African environmental movement within its socio-political context, this study hopes to redress some of the imbalances, gaps and distortions which exist as a result of the bias and romantic myths propagated by many South African conservation histories.
AIMS OF THE STUDY
In broad terms therefore, this study seeks to contribute to the documentation and evaluation of the evolution of South African conservation ideology in the twentieth century, form its beginnings as an elitist, wildlife-centered, preservationist philosophy, to the emergence of a broad-based, socially responsive environmental ideology. It will focus on the period 1910-1990, as a well defined period beginning with the Union South Africa, incorporating the era of segregation, and ending with the formal acknowledgment of the end of the apartheid era.
The specific aims of the project are:
Firstly, to examine the hitherto ignored role of blacks in South African conservation history, and to demonstrate that this role was a significant and integral aspect of South Africa’s conservation history.
To this end, I will be examining the history of black environmental organizations, such as the Native Farmers Association (established in 1918): the African National Soil Conservation Association (established in 1953): the Indian Soil Conservation Association (established in 1953); the African Wildlife Society (established in 1963); the National Environmental Awareness Campaign (established in 1976); the Africa Tree Centre (established in 1980), among others.
What is significant about these organisations, is that they all had to battle to survive within an extremely hostile political environment, which severely circumscribed their effectiveness among their target constituency. Factors such as widespread poverty, poor education, low literacy levels and racially discriminatory laws made it difficult for blacks to gain access to national parks and nature reserves, and to become environmentally aware citizens. Ultimately, these factors negatively impacted on the development of black conservation organisations in general, and the nurturing of new generations of black conservationists in particular. Yet despite these enormous difficulties, black conservation organisations undoubtedly made significant contributions to the development of environmentalism in South Africa, and their history forms an integral, if untold part, of the overall story of conservation in this country in the twentieth century.
Secondly, to evaluate the contribution made by individuals and non-government organisations (both at the mainstream and grassroots levels) to the development of a more holistic and socially-responsive approach to the environment.
To this end, I will be documenting the rise of the ‘new wave’ of radical environmental pressure groups which began to be established from the mid-1970’s onwards, such as the anti-nuclear groups Koeberg Alert (established in 1976) and the Society against Nuclear Energy (established in 1983), as well as the Greenpeace-styled group, Earthlife Africa (established in 1988). The work of the many individuals who have contributed to the construction of a new conservation ideology, will also be examined through both their publications, as well as interviews. Such individuals include Professor Eddie Roux, botanist, political activist and environmental educationist active during the 1950’s and 60’s; Creina Bond, former editor of African Wildlife in the 1970s; Simeon Geumisa, first environmental educator for the Wildlife Society in 1976; Robert Mazibuko, an environmentalist active during the 1960s to the 80s, among many others.
The individuals focused upon in this study, whether in the mainstream movement, part of the ‘new wave’ of radical organisations or part of grassroots, mainly black organisations, all contributed to the construction of a new environmental ideology which differed dramatically from the old. These conservationists (both black and white), challenged the stereotyped assumptions that conservation was only about wildlife, that it was only for the elite, that it should only respond to the perceptions and concerns of whites. Instead, they put forward a vision of conservation that was broadly inclusive, that did not shy away from politics and that did not regard human beings and their basic needs as peripheral, and largely irrelevant to, the conservation agenda.
The final section of this thesis, will document and evaluate the development of the South African environmental movement since 1990, bringing to bear the historical lessons of the past, focused upon in the earlier sections.
Thus far, the study of South African conservation history, with a few notable exceptions, has generally been a superficial narration of events, often divorced from a socio-political context, and usually ignoring the role and perceptions of blacks. This study, by concentrating on the ‘hidden history’ of conservation, and by redressing some of the shortcomings and distortions which exist in this field, ultimately hopes to contribute to the process or rewriting South African conservation history.